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Comparative politics designates a distinct subfield in political science. Although Aristotle’s political writings were arguably some of the first works in comparative political inquiry, the field has been most influenced by the writing of nineteenthand twentieth-century thinkers including Gabriel Almond, Hannah Arendt, Robert Dahl, Harry Eckstein, Samuel Huntington, Seymour Martin Lipset, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. Research in comparative politics seeks to account for the observed variation over time and among political units on consequential social, political, cultural, and economic outcomes by examining, describing, modeling, and predicting continuity and change resulting from the dynamics among international, national, and subnational actors.
The subfield’s methodological orientation is catholic in its use of quantitative and qualitative techniques. Historically, the subfield has emphasized the use of case studies, often employing John Stuart Mill’s methods of difference and similarity, but statistical analysis (mostly on cross-sectional, time-series, and multilevel data), computational methods, and formal modeling have become more prevalent in recent years. Gary King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba (1994) and Henry Brady and David Collier (2004) offer introductions to some recent issues in comparative political methodology.
The field is organized around substantive topics, though disagreement on these canonical elements remains considerable. However, two broad dimensions can be delineated: the statics of political systems and the dynamics of political conflict and cooperation. The study of political systems evolves around the conditions and prerequisites for the establishment and survival of various regime types. Some of the crucial questions include: What distinguishes democracies from nondemocracies and from what lies in between? What explains the successful transition from one political system to another? What is the nature of liberal democracy?
A core debate in the study of democracy is the relationship between wealth and democracy: Some claim that wealth induces democracy, others that wealth simply accompanies democracy but is causally unrelated to it, and still others (e.g., Adam Przeworski) have suggested that wealth sustains democracy once it has taken root. Closely related is the study of democratic institutions and competitive elections, which has focused on the relationship between political institutions and political outcomes, such as collective mobilization, party formation, and policy preferences (e.g., in the work of Gary Cox, Robert Dahl, Richard Katz and Peter Mair, Herbert Kitschelt, and Giovanni Sartori). The study of autocracies has focused largely on developing typologies of authoritarian regimes and on the strategic interaction of elites during the transition to democracies. The comparative study of political liberalism across countries and over time has also received sustained attention in, for example, the work of Ira Katznelson.
Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba’s The Civic Culture (1963) was an early cross-national comparative study of democracy in which the authors linked civic attitudes and democratic stability using a tripartite typology of political cultures—parochial, subject, and participant. The cultures spanned from purely passive to highly engaged attitudes toward the political system and civic life. Almond and Verba argued that political cultures adhere to the principle of congruence between a political structure and the attitudes of its citizens. The study concludes that competent, active citizenries sustain democracies.
The literature on democratization has vacillated between an emphasis on the structural determinants of sustainable democracy and elite incentives and capabilities to modify the political order (Skocpol 1979). The work of Samuel Huntington derives the preconditions for political order both from socioeconomic changes and political institutions. Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter’s work challenges structuralism and represents an actor-centered approach, which argues that the elite split followed by negotiated pacts (which incorporate the preferences of the military) is a necessary precondition for the successful transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Since 1989, the transitions from authoritarian regimes have produced a variety of political outcomes in the gray zone between autocracy and democracy. The study of competitive authoritarianisms (or illiberal democracies) is an emerging field of comparative study.
The study of linkages and distributional conflicts that arise at the intersection between politics, economics, and society has led to the development of an area of inquiry often dubbed “political economy.” The “varieties of capitalism” literature is a prime example (e.g., Hall and Soskice 2001; for discussions of corporatism, see Schmitter 1975). The analysis of advanced capitalist democracies (OECD states) was induced by the oil shocks and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system. Political economy, in the work of Torben Iversen, for example, has since focused on the conditions for growth, stability, wage equality, and redistribution and seeks to untangle the ties between political systems, inequality, and policy formation. One line of inquiry focuses on domestic responses to international challenges, such as global economic competition, trade openness, and international institutions.
The study of dynamics among and within political systems focuses on conflict, revolutions, ethnic tensions, and order in society. The study of revolutions, for example, identifies the sources of state collapse and patterns of group alignment and mobilization. Studies of ethnicity and political culture analyze identity formation and the conditions under which identity is or can be mobilized for political purposes. Comparative politics intersects with international relations in many ways, but most often at the interface of ethnic conflict (e.g., Horowitz  2000). According to such writers as Donald Horowitz, Arend Lijphart, and David Laitin, the causes and consequences of state failure, intercommunal violence, and the institutional conditions under which ethnically divided societies can coexist remain core questions in comparative politics.
The third wave of democratization has raised new questions about the relationship between electoral competition and economic reforms and has moved the field closer, in some ways, to international relations in debating the push-and-pull effects of international organizations (e.g., the European Union) or of global economic strategies (e.g., foreign direct investment). New agendas in comparative politics are emerging at the intersection of ethnic(and culturally) based identities and political mobilization. Topics and subjects developed in the study of the OECD countries are beginning to migrate outside the region to address related issues. Methodologically, the field has benefited from the massive increase in computing power now available to social scientists, but it has not abandoned altogether its reliance on a small number of in-depth case studies. The field appears to be moving recognizably toward the potentially fruitful cross-pollination of quantitative and qualitative research methods and strategies.
- Almond, Gabriel, and James Coleman, eds. 1960. The Politics of the Developing Areas. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Almond, Gabriel, and Sidney V 1963. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Brady, Henry, and David Collier, 2004. Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Cox, Gary. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World’s Electoral Systems. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Dahl, Rober 1961. Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Eckstein, Harry A Theory of Stable Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Hall, Peter, and David Soskice, 2001. Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Horowitz, Donald 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
- Horowitz, Donald 2001. The Deadly Ethnic Riot. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Huntington, S 1968. Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Huntington, S 1991. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Iversen, T 2005. Capitalism, Democracy, and Welfare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Katz, Richard, and Peter Mair. How Parties Organize: Change and Adaptation in Party Organizations in Western Democracies. London: Sage.
- Katznelson, I 1996. Liberalism’s Crooked Circle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Katznelson, Ira, and Helen Milner, 2002. Political Science: State of the Discipline. New York: Norton for the American Political Science Association.
- King, Gary, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba. 1994. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Kitschelt, Herber 1989. Logics of Party Formation: Ecological Politics in Belgium and West Germany. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Kitschelt, Herbert, with Anthony McGann. 1995. The Radical Right in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Laitin, D 1986. Hegemony and Culture: The Politics of Religious Change Among the Yoruba. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Laitin, D 2004. Comparative Politics: State of the Subdiscipline. In Political Science: The State of the Discipline, eds. Ira Katznelson and Helen Milner, 630–659. New York: Norton.
- Lijphart, Ar 1977. Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Lipset, Seymour Mar 1960. Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Lipset, Seymour Mar 1996. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. New York: Norton.
- O’Donnell, Guillermo. Modernization and Bureaucratic: Studies in South American Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- O’Donnell, Guillermo, Philippe Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, eds. 1986. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Comparative Perspectives. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Przeworski, Adam, Michael Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi. 2000. Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950–1990. Cambridge, U.K. Cambridge University Press.
- Sartori, Giov 1976. Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Schmitter, Philippe 1975. Corporatism and Public Policy in Authoritarian Portugal. London: Sage.
- Skocpol, 1979. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Soskice, David, and Peter Hall, eds. Varieties of Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Zuckerman, Alan , and Mark Irving Lichbach. 1997. Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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